5 tips for bringing history to life for early years students

Updated: Aug 3


Teaching history is one of my great passions. As a history graduate, a past employee of a museum and a history buff, teaching history is the one thing that gives me such great pleasure.


Lots of teachers think history is dry and dull or feel it's difficult to teach history concepts to early years students but not only is it possible but it can be also great fun!


Here are my 5 tips for bringing history to life for early years students


1. Keep it fun

I'd love to say this goes without saying but I have listened to teachers talk for over 30 minutes to Foundation year (aged 5) students. Early years students do not have the attention span for a long presentation or introduction. Rather, spend 2-3 minutes talking about what you're going to do today and use those visuals to hook students in!

Get excited about it. You love history and they will too! Never let students think history is a boring subject to teach or students will soon believe the same. Keep your resources bright, colourful and relevant to them. Learning about the history of toys, for example, will immediately hook early years children in.


2. Make it relevant


Without trying to make you feel old, you are a walking advertisement for life in the past. What was school like for you? Okay, you might not be THAT old but your school life was certainly different from their school life now.


As with all lessons, start with what they know and work outwards. They know the concept of school. They know they have to pack their backpack, wear a uniform, take their lunch etc. So now you can start to introduce these things as they were in the past.


Keep your history subjects relevant to early years children but build those history concepts such as time and place. How were objects used in the past and why? Why didn't you use an iPad in the classroom 20 years ago? What has changed and what is the reason for this change? Keep posing those questions back to students so they can start to do that higher-level thinking.


3. Built context


What will a child of today know about a 1900s telephone? Nothing. Initially. You will need to build the context and you can do this by taking children back 100 years and showing them how an old phone works. Then work towards each new invention to help built the idea that objects change due to the need required. Why was it difficult to use a rotary phone sometimes? How are hands-free phones better than a phone attached to the wall? How did this change life for those using these phones?

I always use the 5 Ws (I use them for many other subjects too) to keep students referring back to those Inquiry questions. A fun little activity I use with early years students is I get them to bring in one item from home each. Then I put them in groups of 5 and give them a why, who, when, what and where question card each. Then each student presents their object and the other students take turns asking a 5 Ws question. This also leads students to open and closed questions in future lessons.

Try to get some solid tangible work from students after this sort of discussion, such as creating a short written piece or creating a timeline. With early years students, I strongly recommend you work on your timeline as a whole class or in small teacher-led groups. It's so easy to get muddled up with timelines so keep it simple. You're just introducing the concept of a timeline to help students build on the idea that objects have changed over time.


4. Explore vocabulary


An absolutely MUST DO for every lesson, not just history, is to teach the vocabulary required to learn this. What does 'the past' actually mean? What are we talking about when we say 'long ago'? If you don't have a clear answer to this you shouldn't start the lesson yet. Teach the vocabulary in context with the material and create a word wall.

I actually love making a display wall as you go because this allows you to re-introduce the subject matter throughout the term without students have to think back to the last lesson. Place lots of visuals on the wall, real images are important as well as pretty clipart and make sure you have explained that vocabulary in explicit terms.


5. Ensure it's hands-on


Lastly, keep it as hands-on as possible. Where you can, bring an object in from your home that is something students may not have encountered before. Let students touch and explore it with their hands.


Use cut and paste activities as often as you can too with young students. Flipbooks and colouring sheets are a perfect fit at the end of a lesson to consolidate learning, so never underestimate them. As long as you are constantly changing things up in the lesson, students should remain engaged. When they're engaged, they are learning.


I love making dioramas at the end of a piece of history study. Just having a hands-on activity where students can display their research in a finished piece is a great way to keep students motivated. It also ensures that research and writing are purposeful.

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